New Orleans sports in jeopardy

NEW ORLEANS -- Hornets owner George Shinn guaranteed on Wednesday that a task force he's leading to save Division I sports at the University of New Orleans will succeed.

"I want to assure you that we're going to make this work, that the money will be here next year to support this university," Shinn said to student-athletes during an announcement about the formation of the new committee. "That's a promise from me."

Shinn added, "I want you to promise to me that you'll come back and that you'll support this university and help support us."

The dozens of athletes in attendance uttered a collective, "Yes," and clapped in support.

The future of UNO sports has been in serious doubt since last week, when students rejected a proposal to double their athletic fees to nearly $200 a year. The fee increase was proposed as a way to compensate for anticipated deep cuts across Louisiana's public universities.

Statewide, Gov. Bobby Jindal has proposed cutting $219 million in funding for higher education as the state grapples with sharp declines in revenue due to the national recession and the sharp drop in oil prices late last year.

The proposed overall cut at the University of New Orleans is more than $15 million, including a $1.4 million cut to athletics, which already was running a $600,000 deficit.

UNO chancellor Tim Ryan said hope remains that the state Legislature will change Jindal's budget bill and restore some higher education funding.

"If the Legislature .... does not cut higher education by the obscene amount that is in the [state budget] bill at this point, then we have a permanent solution for UNO athletics," UNO chancellor Tim Ryan said.

There's no guarantee of that, however, so Shinn said he decided he would take action now in an effort to persuade UNO's current athletes to stay put.

"We will have the money when the money's needed," Shinn said. "The calls I've made have been very positive. We're just really committed to build this program to help this university because this is such an asset, we've just got to do it."

Shinn said he would be writing a check himself to cover part of a deficit that athletic director Jim Miller estimated would approach $2.5 million in the next academic year. Shinn said the new committee would come up with the amount he would give, based on what seems reasonable enough for other business leaders and wealthy individuals to match.

Shinn said he also would lend the marketing know-how of his NBA club to help UNO sports promote themselves better and increase ticket sales.

Charles Carmouche, a guard on the UNO men's basketball team, was among those on hand for the announcement.

"I feel a whole lot more confident. It's unbelievable what George Shinn and his people are doing for the program," Carmouche said. "It's a big help and I really appreciate it personally as a native of New Orleans. I can go to sleep better tonight."

Basketball coach Joe Pasternack, also a New Orleans native, said the failed student vote on increased fees may turn out to be "a blessing in disguise."

"Sometimes it takes crises for people to step up and this was a crisis," Pasternack said. "This is huge for us, the show of support, getting George Shinn, getting all these big-time business people behind UNO athletics."

Others lending support include UNO graduate John Georges, a business owner and former gubernatorial candidate, as well as former UNO basketball star Gabe Corchiani (brother of former NBA player Chris Corchiani). Georges and Corchiani already donated $1 million toward renovations at 8,800-seat Lakefront Arena, which reopened last season following $26 million in repairs to damage caused by Hurricane Katrina.

"If UNO athletics would go away, it's such a black eye for the city," Corchiani said. "What type of message would that send about New Orleans across the country?"